Polygamy has been practiced by the humankind since the beginning of time. In fact, Jews, Christians and Muslims will tell you of multiple men who had more than one wife according to holy books. Although some religions and customs still permit a man to marry more than one woman, it is often described as ‘strange’ when a woman has several partners.
Think about it – it is not often that you hear of a polyandrous marriage (a woman who is legally married to more than one man), right? But such constellations do exist, they just tend to be unofficial and clandestine.
Take my friend Kate as an example. A few years ago she happily agreed when her boyfriend Mark suggested a road-trip around Europe with his college buddy. Afterall, Thomas was funny, easy-going and sexy… Hot summer nights and strong Greek wine somehow inspired the travelers to try a Ménage-à-trois… Well, from that moment on, the happy trio needed one bed only.
When Kate discovered she was pregnant, all three decided to move in together and raise the child as a family. Soon the second baby was on the way. And that’s how Mark and Thomas became co-fathers and Kate’s unofficial husbands. Yes, „brother husbands“ are actually a thing.
In February 2017, TLC (which already has two longrunning reality TV shows sheding a light on polygamy — “Sister Wives” and the new series “Seeking Sister Wife”) aired a pilot episode for a series adequately titled “Brother Husbands”, but it didn’t quite take off as much as the network expected it to.
The short-lived series revolved around the Stone family — which consisted of wife Amanda, husband Chad, and second husband Jeremy. Together, they have five children (two sons and triplet daughters) and all kids are raised together as siblings.
In recent times, reports of ladies tying the knot with multiple hubbies have flooded the social media, sparking diverse reactions on these platforms.
First, let’s get the terminology straight. Monogamy is the marriage of one man to one woman. Polyandry – or marriage of a woman to two or more men at the same time – is a rare phenomenon, however not as rare as once thought. The term derives from the Greek: “poly” means “many” and “andry” means “husbands”. Polyandry is contrasted with polygyny, involving one male and two or more females
Polygamy, even though it is often used in common discourse as a synonym for polygyny, refers simultaneously to both polygyny and polyandry. Scientists, therefore, tend not to use this ambiguous term.
Fraternal polyandry occurs when a woman is married to two or more men who are brothers.
Sequential polyandry occurs when a woman mates with a male, produces offspring, then terminates the relationship with that male, while she goes off to repeat this sequence with another male.
What all polyandrous relationships (classical and modern, formal and informal) have in common is that they are all socially recognized and sanctioned systems in which women may openly and simultaneously have multiple mates. Wives in such systems are not „cheating“ by any stretch of the imagination, nor are the men being cuckolded.
Polyandry is believed to be more likely in societies with scarce environmental resources, since it limits human population growth and enhances child survival. An extreme gender imbalance could also be a justification for polyandry. For example, the selective abortion of female children in India has led to a significant margin in sex ratio, possibly resulting in related men „sharing“ a wife.
Another reason is the frequent absence, for long periods, of a man from the household – for example during a war. It appears that a man preparing for a long departure may arrange a second husband (frequently his brother) for his wife to protect her —and thus the family’s interests. And if she gets impregnated while Husband #1 is gone, it will be by a man of whom he had approved in advance. The woman in such a scenario might not tell the husbands which child belongs to whom in order not to create any problems or issues in their family. Anthropologists have recorded this kind of situation among the Inuit peoples (formerly called Eskimos).
Polyandrous mating systems are also a common phenomenon in the animal kingdom, occurring for example in certain insects, fish, birds, and mammals.
Let’s sum up the causes of polyandry:
Poverty in which one man cannot support his wife
Desire of limited population
Shortage of women as compared to men
Desire to maintain a joint family system
What are the places where women have more than one husband?
In 2012 anthropologists Kathrine Starkweather and Raymond Hames published a report in Human Nature, identifying 53 societies throughout the world that either used to or still practice polyandry, both formal (i.e., recognized by marriage and co-residence) and informal (when two or more men take care of a woman and are considered the co-fathers of offspring).
We are not going to list all 53 of them, but will instead concentrate on the best-known regions.
TIBET / NEPAL / CHINA
Fraternal polyandry is practiced for example among Tibetans in the Plateau of Tibet, where two or more brothers are married to the same wife, with the lady having equal “sexual access” to them. It is based on the belief that a child can have more than one father.
Although the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region ceased to tolerate new polyandric marriages under family law in 1981, a 2008 survey of Tibetan families found that 20-50% of the families practiced polyandry, with the majority having two husbands. For some remote settlements, the number was as high as 90%. Polyandry was rare among urban residents or non-agricultural households.
The practice seems to be more common if the family is poor and parents cannot divide their humble properties among their sons. The solution to keeping the farmland and property together is by getting married to the same woman. If every brother married separately and had children, family land would be split into unsustainable small plots.
Researcher Nancy E. Levine has further suggested that polyandry developed in Tibet, because it provided a household with enough male laborers to work the marginal agricultural lands in the Himalayas as well as concentrate on herding and trading.
Polygamy was officially banned in Nepal in 1963, but people in Humla, Dolpa and Kosi regions care about their traditions much more than they do about the law. There are entire villages of polyandrous families. This form of marriage is also common among tribes in the north and north-east of Nepal, such as Bhote, Sherpa, Newbie, and others.
The “Tibetan-Marriage” is also encountered in some regions of Yunnan and Sichuan regions of China, among the Mosuo people. It is believed possible for a woman to be impregnated by more than one man’s sperm at a time — that is, a child can have more than one father.
Two major types of polyandrous relationships (fraternal and sequential polyandry) are reported in several parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Ladakh and Zanskar. India as a country has multiple tribes practicing polyandry, for example Paharis in the Jaunsarbawar region. As descendants of Draupadi, the beautiful daughter of King Panchala and a queen in the ancient Indian epic Mahābhārata (a major Sanskrit epic of ancient India), who was married to five husbands (the Pandavas), Paharis believe they have to carry on the custom. According to Paharis, a woman who marries the first son of the family is automatically the wife to all his brothers and all the men have equal rights to her as husbands and as fathers to all her children.
The Toda-tribe of South India has a similar tradition. A Toda bride is automatically married to a man and his brothers. When the wife gets pregnant, one husband ceremonially gives her a bow and arrow, and so becomes the father of that child. When the next child arrives, another husband performs the ceremony and is thus recognized as the father.
Some tribes in Nigeria used to allow polyandry, until their councils voted to outlaw it. Up to 1968 the Irigwe people of North Nigeria practiced women moving from house to house, taking on multiple husbands. The children’s paternity was assigned to the man whose house the woman lived in at the time.
Kenyan laws don’t explicitly forbid polyandry, therefore no legal action can be taken against people who practice it, for example the Massai tribes. So it was not a problem when in 2013 two men decided to be co-husbands to a woman they both loved. Apparently, both lovers decided that they were fed up with having to constantly fight over the lady and since she was unable to pick between them, the three decided to get married.
It is said that up to 70 percent of the Amazonian cultures may have believed in the principle of multiple paternity, where a child has more than one biological father. In cultures like the Tupi-Kawahib and the Bororos, fraternal polyandry was not all that uncommon. Among the Zo’e tribe in the state of Pará on the Cuminapanema River, Brazil, „every woman is the property of several husbands. It is this collection of husbands, who live together in a hut, with their common wife.“
Cultures like the Aleut people (indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska) are believed to have practiced polyandry in the past.
In USA, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and other early Latter-day Saints, had polygamous marriages with several women who were already married to other men. Polyandrous families did exist, albeit in significantly less numbers, in early LDS history. The practice officially ended with the 1890 Manifesto.
An American lady named Kenya Stevens runs an Instagram profile “progressive_love_academy” and 38,3k people follow her. According to her posts, she lives happily under one roof with both her husbands and their children.
Stevens wrote: “Poly girls have all the fun!!! 😂😂 Here’s me and my two life partners. One is a body love WC™️ one is a mind love CC™️ – They’re both 6’3. They both have beards… We all wear glasses 😂😂 One is a Southern Gent, the other is a shrewd northerner. We live together and we get along really well. I’m raising both their sons – our oldest two are away at college! Interesting fact – Both hubbies are super hetero – I identify as omnisexual”
Another of her captions says “Often I think of the fact that I have two divorce-proof marriages while many women want just one sure thing. I’m always willing to support women in establishing the powerful relationships they desire!! I have these wonderful men in my life because I have massive skills. I’m happy to pass these skills on to powerful women who have EVERYTHING else together, and now want an incredible love life. I want highly spirited women who have their career in order and are ready to create their queendoms. The most challenging part for these women is OWNING their desire to create an out of the box relationship!”
I personally would not mind learning from Kenya Stevens!
Now, of course, the fact that polyandry is very rare in human society does not mean that married women, whether monogamously or polygynously married, have always been faithful to their husbands and mated with only one man. On the contrary – we have physiological evidence that women have always been mildly promiscuous throughout evolutionary history.
As they say “only the mother is known for sure.” Paternity certainty is low enough in a monogamous marriage, where the woman is “supposed to” have sex with only one man. The estimates for cuckoldry (where the man unknowingly raises another man’s genetic child) in monogamous societies range from 13-20% in the United States, 10-14% in Mexico, and 9-17% in Germany. In other words, as many as one out of every five American fathers may be unwittingly raising someone else’s child, erroneously believing it to be genetically his.
So the question is – why not legalize polyandry, allowing one wife to have many husbands? After all, as Kenya Stevens wrote “Poly girls have all the fun!!!”